NFL

NFL AM: O-Line Investments Paying Off Across League

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by Chris Boyle

Fat guys need love, too.

And outside of Dallas, where the front five receives hero-worship these days, offensive linemen hardly get the recognition which they truly deserve.

That’s about to change.

Pro Football Focus released its offensive line rankings before last week’s games. Entering Monday, the top eight teams, or one-quarter of the NFL, hold a combined record of 52-35 and occupy three playoff spots.

Monday night’s game features two of the league’s premier units – second-ranked Philadelphia and fifth-ranked Green Bay. Carson Wentz and Aaron Rodgers have been afforded the luxury of the league’s best pass protection.

But in a passing league, shoddy blocking appears far too prevalent.

As an example, Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian essentially wore Kansas City pass-rush specialist Justin Houston for an entire half last night. Houston, activated off the PUP list two weeks ago, embarrassed starting right tackle Ty Sambrailo time after time, forcing coach Gary Kubiak to bench him.

So what does it take to build a great offensive line? It depends on who you ask, really.

The Dallas Cowboys spent three first-round picks to beef up its line in front of, at the time, Tony Romo. Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin – all Pro Bowl players – heard their names called in the opening round.

Martin, for what it’s worth, is the player the Cowboys selected instead of Johnny Manziel. Remember him?

Entering Week 11, Ezekiel Elliott – the NFL’s leading rusher – gained 439 yards before contact. Not to mention, opposing pass rushers generated a total of 71 pressures in the Cowboys’ first nine games.

The Oakland Raiders, meanwhile, bought much of its offensive line on the open market. Center Rodney Hudson and left guard Kelechi Osemele signed lucrative free-agent deals and have been worth every penny. Joining left tackle Donald Penn, right guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Austin Howard, those two men anchor a unit which has allowed a league-low 13 sacks.

Oakland’s offensive line played all 74 snaps in Sunday’s 35-32 victory over the Carolina Panthers, one which guaranteed the franchise’s first winning season since 2002.

“We still have a long way ahead of us,” Penn told reporters after the game. “We haven’t played our best football yet. We’re just going to try to keep stacking these wins, add them up at the end of the season. I’m going to take this win, just win baby. Like Khalil [Mack] says, ‘by any means’. We won, but we still have a long way to go. We’re a long way from playing the football we want but we’re going to keep stacking these wins and that’s all that matters.”

As for the high-flying Atlanta Falcons, the league’s highest-scoring offense, they’ve found talent through a variety of avenues.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff drafted stalwart left tackle Jake Matthews sixth overall in 2014, made Alex Mack the league’s highest paid center in March and locked up right tackle and former undrafted free agent Ryan Schraeder last week to a deal worth a reported $33 million with $12.5 million in guaranteed money.

Not to mention, the Falcons adjusted to Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme.

“A big deal about the outside zone is being able to play in space with guys and keep them on the line of scrimmage and not give up penetration,” Schraeder told The Associated Press. “You’ve got to be an athletic guy. You’ve got to be big. You’ve got to be able to move. It’s not an easy offense, but when you have the skill set, you can be successful with it.”

The suddenly 6-6 Tennessee Titans benefitted from an identity change as well, molding into Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smash-mouth” offense. First-round selections Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin are rapidly becoming the league’s top young tandem of tackles. And Josh Kline, Ben Jones and Quinton Spain have all graded out positively over the course of the season.

Dominant offensive lines do not guarantee success, however. The Packers and New Orleans Saints, both boasting top-eight units, rank among the bottom of the league in pass defense. Conversely, Seattle and Minnesota can’t run the ball or keep their quarterbacks upright, yet have winning records thanks to excellent defenses.

But there’s a reason quarterbacks and running backs treat their linemen to exorbitant steak dinners. Without them, it’s a hell of a lot harder to win.


About Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein is the managing football editor for Football Insiders and has covered the NFL for over a decade.  Charlie has hosted drive time radio for NBC and ESPN affiliates in different markets around the country, along with being an NFL correspondent for ESPN Radio and WFAN.  He has been featured on the NFL Network as well as Sirius/XM NFL Radio and has been published on Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, ESPN as well as numerous other publications.